‘The Day Gordon Went Back’ 

3417’s Return to The Mainline- 27/01/24 

 It all started with a phone call. As Steve Upton and I discussed at length the events of a few days before, both of us were still trying to process what had taken place. For everyone at the Southern Electric Traction Group (SETG) and its fellow supporters, it was a major milestone. The fact that 3417 had indeed, returned to the mainline was the ambition of many, achieved by few. Steve was, unsurprisingly, overwhelmed by the scale and response to their piece of Southern Region returning to life. Despite the events of January 27th having passed, he was still busy working through responses and media requests and looking to the next step for 3417. For those who support, live, and breathe railways, it never stops. For Steve and the dedicated team at the SETG, it has been a long and very winding road. Not without difficulties, sadness, and loss along the way. Steve was rounding off our call when he said, “Right, I’ve got to finish off this piece I’m meaning to write for the website”. Then…after a pause he said the following “Would you like to write something for us as well?” This request initially took me by surprise. Truthfully, I believe that my small contribution to the events of January 27th and my thoughts and feelings would be of little, if any, interest to anyone but Steve assured me “You have your own story to tell, and we’d love to see it from your perspective.” So, here is my short story on the events of that memorable day on Saturday 27th 2024. The day that ‘Gordon’ went back. 

To provide some brief background to this piece, my railway interest started young. Thanks to my father’s involvement in the railway industry, my passion was cemented from an early age. It led to my time spent working for South West Trains, now South Western Railway, as a guard at Guildford and would ultimately lead to my path into railway preservation, which has involved being a member of the Merchant Navy Locomotive Preservation Society (MNLPS) and maintaining 35028 ‘Clan Line’ for the past 10 years, to working in my current full-time role at The Bluebell Railway in Sussex. My interest in 3417 and the SETG was fuelled by several different connections, with my father (being a mixed traction driver at Woking) having driven 400 series EMUs like 3417 (and would have more than likely driven it during his career), my childhood connection travelling on them, and having access to 3417 through The Bluebell Railway (the owners of the EMU). It’s safe to say that the Southern Region very much runs through my veins! 

I have been fortunate to develop a firm friendship with Steve, Chris Buckland and many others who are part of the SETG team. Like them, I was already a firm advocate for seeing this unit return to its former glory. My first time at Strawberry Hill was in 2016, a year after the group had settled into the South West London Depot and the unit had been cosmetically restored by the team at Bombardier at Ilford. Since then, the team have tirelessly worked behind the scenes to get 3417 back to working order. It’s without question that they encountered challenges, as is common with all projects that aim to restore any piece of railway rolling stock to the mainline, but despite this, I’ve always remained confident in the SETG and what they wish to achieve. 

Fast-forwarding six years, over a ‘casual pint’ with Steve & Chris before Christmas 2023, they shared their plans to return 3417 to London Waterloo in January 2024. The goal was to present the unit to Gordon Pettitt at the very terminus, where 20 years previously, it had been named in recognition of his work and achievement for the southern region and British Railways, before withdrawing from service in 2005. “We need your help on this one, it’s not going to be easy but we’re going to give it a try” Chris said to me with a mix of confidence and understandable nerves. Having had experience with Clan Line’s involvement on the mainline, I knew the scale and magnitude of what was required. In a short space of time, it was going to take a huge effort by all parties concerned. In a strange roundabout turn, I couldn’t help but liken the nature of what was being asked to ‘The Greatest Raid of All’- ‘Operation Chariot’, the daring 1942 Combined Operations commando raid carried out against the Normandie dock at St Nazaire. As with the Chariot, the planning stage for getting 3417 to Waterloo was very short, a little over 3 months in total, and the overall ambition would require a massive effort by a number of different parts of the railway family coming together to make the impossible ‘possible’. Unsurprisingly, the nature of what was going to take place needed to remain as confidential as possible, up to the very last minute, which is certainly no mean feat in today’s age of social media and information at the touch of a fingertip. 

Buckie and Trousers; busy.

I was pleased to offer as much help as I could to this effort, playing a key role in the PR and media support from The Bluebell Railway. The amount of work that was undertaken behind the scenes was incredible. Indeed, several various moving parts within the railway industry went above and beyond to make January 27th possible. Alongside the hard-working SETG team, the coordination of this event was made possible through the support of The Bluebell Railway, South Western Railway (SWR), GB Rail Freight (GBRF) and Network Rail. There were certainly moments that were testing (including a drive over to Strawberry Hill late one evening a few weeks before D-Day!) however, obstacles were overcome, deadlines were met, and an unhealthy amount of tea was consumed. With the date in January set and all the work done behind the scenes, 3417 was ready to go, to embark on what was an emotional and poignant day on the SWR Network. 

The morning of January 27th started off as an unsurprisingly cold one. Arriving at Strawberry Hill, the SETG mess was lively with the usual cups of tea, bacon sandwiches and banter. The magnitude of what was going to take place didn’t fully set in until the arrival of the supporting Class 73s from GBRF to the depot. The two selected were 73119 ‘Paul Taylor’ (a fitting choice named after a long-standing SETG supporter who had sadly passed away) and 73109 ‘Battle of Britain 80th Anniversary’. This too was a fitting choice for two reasons: 73109 had been the very Class 73 that had delivered 3417 to The Bluebell Railway back in 2009, and the other reason, personal to me, the 73109 was the SWT ‘Thunderbird’ loco based at Woking up until its withdrawal. This locomotive was a constant feature for me growing up and I vividly remember seeing 73109 either on the blocks at Platform 6 or situated at ‘The Hurdles’ at the country end of Platform 1. It is fantastic to see this Class 73 (like so many others) still going strong, a credit to GBRF and their team for keeping these locomotives alive. 

With the arrival of both Class 73s, the plan to get 3417 to Waterloo was now very real indeed. I shared the excitement and nerves of the SETG, like them, I wanted this day to succeed above expectations. But first, we needed to successfully get the 4VEP to Waterloo. With 73109 coupled up, it was an incredible and very special moment to see 3417 leave the shed at Strawberry Hill. It’s hard to imagine that after 9 years, the 4VEP was finally leaving its home. Being there on behalf of The Bluebell Railway and capturing these moments for them and the SETG from behind the lens, I really felt the magnitude of what I was seeing. All the hard work and planning by the SETG was now becoming a reality. Seeing 73109 draw 3417 out of the shed will honestly stay with me for a long time. It was a real ‘I was there’ moment. Something which video or photos can’t replicate. As both 73109 and 3417 were marshalled with 73119, the stage was set for an extra special journey through sleepy suburbia into the capital, a journey that 3417 and so many of her 400 Series counterparts had undertaken during their careers on the Southern Region. I tried to capture as much as possible before we departed, taking a documentary style approach to my photography, to ensure this special moment was captured for future reference and reflection. With that, I made a dash to retrieve my camera bag from the mess as the time had come to get everyone on board 3417. 

A surreal moment (like so many that were experienced that day) was observing an empty electric shed. Since 2015, it has been the haven for 3417 and its small but dedicated team. Now, almost akin to that of seeing one of the great ocean liners departing from the builder’s yard after building it from the ground up, the space felt eerie without the presence of what had occupied it for so many years. The road was now set to proceed out of Strawberry Hill and make the journey to London Waterloo. 

As we left Strawberry Hill, 73109 and 73119 sprang into life, onto the mainline network. I can’t begin to think what those on board were thinking, especially Chris and Darren Franklin, who were the travelling SETG fitters for the journey. For me, it was an extra special moment that I felt privileged to be a part of. Admittedly, imposter syndrome set in as we departed! As we gradually made our way through familiar locations on the run into Waterloo – Twickenham, Richmond, Wandsworth Town – I found memories of old were flooding back. The memory of something seemingly lost forever up until this very moment was brought back in vivid sounds and vision as we made our way along the line. Something which I’ve taken away from my time spent on the mainline with Clan Line is how people you pass, going about their daily business, waiting for a train or travelling themselves, can stop in sheer amazement of witnessing a vision of the past brought back to life. This was very much repeated on our run with 3417 on January 27th. 

We all knew that 4VEP’s return to the mainline, would attract attention, but nothing would prepare us for just how much interest it generated, by both those young and old. To say it was emotional was an understatement. To reconnect with something that has held such a legacy in your life, is a feeling like no other. I cannot thank those who made it possible enough. 

In what felt like a blink of an eye, we had reached our destination of London Waterloo. To see the grand terminus from aboard 3417 was a magical moment. What will also stay with me, was on arrival at Platform 19, seeing the vast amounts of people lined up on Platform 18, ready to welcome this Southern Region veteran back to this home of the Southern Region. Despite some restrictive signalling at the start of the journey around Twickenham, everything had gone to plan. Another not-to-be-forgotten moment was seeing 73119 detach from the 4VEP from the second man’s side window of the rear cab of 3417; a very special view that was unique enough to grab a photo of. The achievement was instantly recognised by those present. I couldn’t help but get swept up in the joy and happiness of those around me. This was only too evident in two of my friends, Stephen Trower & Chris Page, observing yours truly with the biggest grin imaginable from the cab window of 3417 before disembarking from the 4VEP. Naturally, they took a photo to prove this! 

From the moment stepping out onto Platform 19, you felt as if you were part of something that would be talked about and remembered for many years to come. The vast array of people present, from all different walks of life and areas of the railway family, instantly showed the support, warmth, and appreciation for what the SETG and its partners had achieved. I was delighted to bump into people who I know from my railway career, past and present. As well as the highlight of seeing 3417 back in the capital, it was satisfying and rewarding to see the overall aim of the event be achieved: reuniting 3417 with its namesake, Gordon Pettitt. 

The time spent at Waterloo flashed past in a blur while I was busy ensuring I had enough photos to document the event. As I observed the scene, I could see that every single person had a smile on their face, showing appreciation for the years spent making this milestone in the history of 3417 a reality. It was a major moment in preservation. A special moment for me amongst all the hive of activity going on around me, was the chance to grab a photo of myself from the cab window of 3417, a small nod to my father, who throughout his driving career had graced this famous London terminus day in day out driving units like this in the past. 

After capturing a number of photos and group shots and having seen Gordon himself thoroughly enjoying his surprise rendezvous with 3417, it was time to leave. With 73119 now leading, we departed to a sea of smiling faces and applause from Platform 19, heading back to Strawberry Hill. As we were leaving, I will never forget the relief and happiness of Chris Buckland on achieving this major milestone. He was so happy, he even insisted that he ‘needed to put his feet on the seat’. Something for which he said, ‘He’d apologise to Lynn (who had worked tirelessly on the internal restoration of 3417) later on at the pub for such an action.’ This moment had to be recorded, like so much that day, with a photo! 

Like the journey up, the return leg was equally special and reflective. One memorable moment was passing Clapham Junction (the home of 3417 for many years before moving to Strawberry Hill) at a 

decent turn of speed with horns blaring from 73119 as we swept through the station and past the yard. A fine sight and fitting considering the significance of this location, which played a pivotal chapter in the story of the 4VEP. As we raced through the suburbs, we were soon back home to Strawberry Hill and 3417 was safely returned to the shed. The aim to get 3417 back to London Waterloo for Gordon Pettitt had well and truly been achieved. A special day with many incredible memories made. 

Although further work is still required (in the form of installing the required OTMR, TPWS, GSMR and CDL Door Locking required for sole mainline operations without the need of locomotive assistance) the events of Saturday 27th January were a huge step in the long-term future of 3417. It showed that the impossible could be possible. The hard graft, determination, and efforts of the SETG and its partners have shown what can be achieved. To be a part of something like this will always stay with me. Everyone involved with the SETG and those from The Bluebell Railway, SWR, GBRF and Network Rail should be immensely proud of what they achieved. 

Steve summed it up perfectly at the end of the very phone call that led to me writing this piece: 

“James, we did alright, didn’t we?” 

Yes Steve. We certainly did.